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By Tom Cushing

"Where were we" -- and where will we be next time?

Uploaded: Dec 8, 2015

I’m going to perturb more than my usual percentage of the readership (with any luck, the early-morning academic spammers, as well), and admit that I have next-to-no interest in the inescapable Star Wars phenomenon. They lost me at light sabers, for which I think Indiana Jones had the appropriate response in a contemporary galaxy, close to home. What’s the point of them? Maybe somebody can try to set me straight in the Comments – it’s considered a noble calling among some regulars.

I did see ‘Spotlight’ recently – a thoughtful film about a difficult topic, that sticks with you long beyond the credit roll. (Warning -- ahead there be spoilers.) It concerns the Boston Globe’s semi-recent investigation of child abuse by some priests in the Boston Arch-diocese.* Lest I now lose the loyally Catholic fraction of any remaining readers, this is not an anti-religion screed. It’s bigger than that. This blog, and the movie writ large, are about institutions and their inherent capacity to abuse our trust.

All-but-one of ‘Spotlight’s’ protagonists, the new Editor from out-of-town, are Catholic-raised; they are in various stages of lapse, but the Church permeates their identities – including loved ones, schools, their marriages, etc. As leaders in the community, they partake of lavish and imposing Church charity events, and rub elbows there with the city’s elite.

The Church is foundational, with influences in every corner of every element of the community. The incumbent Cardinal (Bernard Law) suggests to the new editor in an early introduction that Bostonians are well-served when his organization and The Globe work together. The newspaperman wisely demurs. The Church does much good, and is so deeply woven into the fabric that no one can conceive of the predatory wrongdoing that was also one of its darkest traditions.

We watch as the crack investigative team begins to dig, and find scraps of evidence in print directories and dusty news clippings extracted from the bowels of actual libraries in a pre-google world. Pleased with their prowess at identifying several errant priests and a path to implicate the Cardinal, they are incredulous when pushed to broaden their inquiry by an order of magnitude. Significantly, they’re also chastened by learning that victims and others had presented them evidence that could have put them on the same trail, several years and many victims earlier.

What the team ultimately exposes is a morally bankrupt, shadowy system that tolerated the ongoing victimization of society’s most vulnerable and impressionable lives. It systematically covered-up criminal behavior per a clandestine system of rationalization, transfer and some in-house treatment, presumably done to protect the institutional interests of the organization from secular consequences.

The story comes out, the lid is blown, and thousands of callers swamp the paper’s phone lines with tips and tales of abuse. It’s a monumental scoop. But at the moment of that journalistic triumph, Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson can’t enjoy it. While others savor the satisfaction of their achievement, he gets it: “Where were we?” he asks. They had allowed themselves to buy into the mythology of the institution, thereby becoming blind to its potential for misdeeds.

In that line lies the message of this parable. It’s distinctly Not that the Church is uniquely venal – rather, it is that Every human institution, even those most trusted to do right, has the capacity for monstrous acts done in secret.

There’s a corollary that makes that phenomenon the more dangerous. In a recent article extracted from her forthcoming book, New Yorker magazine writer Maria Konnikova sets forth the argument that human beings are incorrigibly credulous – we want to trust, and find meaning in events that should defy such categorization. It makes us vulnerable to the con – whether by the 3-card-monte grifter or the televangelist eager to separate us from our savings. She concludes:

“That is the true power of belief. It gives us hope. If we are skeptical, miserly with our trust, unwilling to accept the possibilities of the world, we despair. To live a good life we must, almost by definition, be open to belief. And that is why the confidence game is both the oldest there is and the last one that will still be standing when all other professions have faded away.”

Systems simply must be managed with those sober realities in-mind. That’s Especially true of institutions organized around some good thing, whether it’s a global charity or a local Little League. We may expect the banksters to hide the ball if we take our eye off it, but we let our guard down when it comes to ostensibly benevolent establishments.

Checks-and-balances, internal and external watchdogs, and clear-eyed audits, ought to be designed and built-into most systems and processes, whether it’s actual dual-signature checks, a second person in an examining room or an investigative reporting team. Given human capacities for wrongdoing and rationalization, that’s crucial when there’s a chance that nobody may otherwise be watching.**

Are faith and fidelity therefore dead -- must we be deeply skeptical of everyone? No, but as my daddy taught me early-on: “you can trust everyone, son, but it’s a good idea to cut the cards.” We should always cut the cards -- even and especially when we want to believe it's not necessary.

* Disclosure: that organization was once led by my very, very distant relative and Kennedy clan confidant Richard Cardinal Cushing. Although his era preceded the one in the movie, there is some evidence that he was culpably aware of similar abuses among some of his parish priests. I used to joke with Catholic friends that he was my grandfather, just to see them double-take; I used to.

** Interestingly, the Globe Spotlight team's next project was to uncover financial chicaneries among non-profit organizations. It was important and directionally similar work -- and poring over dry financial reportage gave them a needed break from immersion in the horrible human toll of the prior project.